Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Review: (Winnipeg) Hirsch

The Master and MetaTheatre
by Edgar Governo

It's always hard to speak ill of the ones you care about. Even when you know you're right, even when you feel you're speaking truth to power, there is an element of pain to it, and a part of you wishes you had kept things to yourself.

Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson have clearly struggled with those feelings in their biographical play based on the life of John Hirsch, well-known enough in Canadian theatre but a legend in Winnipeg theatre.

Bringing their work to the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre (RMTC)  Warehouse -- that is to say, The Tom Hendry Theatre, named after the man who co-founded RMTC along with Hirsch, whose own namesake theatre is just down the street -- is fraught with potential tensions they wouldn't have had to deal with when it premiered at the Stratford Festival or when it played at the Edinburgh Fringe. For one thing, neither of those runs had to contend with a bronze statue of the man in question practically within earshot.

Nashman seems aware of this, and the first element of localization included in this production is when he performs as Tom Hendry himself, commenting on how amused he is to see a play about his friend and collaborator in 'his' warehouse. The play as a whole is much more metafictional than I expected it to be -- Nashman continues to show himself wrestling with the material and with the person he is portraying (sometimes literally), making this more interesting than a traditional biography hitting the highlights of Hirsch's life and career. One particularly layered surprise was seeing Nashman portray Hirsch chastising a young Nashman just starting out at Stratford; I was intrigued to see him channel his own bully.

In the programme, Nashman alludes to creating the script with Thompson through extensive improv sessions, a process which still comes across in the play as it stands now with some scenes that don't work or feel out of place (notably a clunky song with invented rhymes placed right after a key confrontation), making the result feel somewhat rough around the edges. The creators of the show are aiming for a structure that juxtaposes milestones and traumas from Hirsch's life with various characters from notable plays in which he was involved -- Mother Courage, King Lear, Prospero --but this seems like a second or third draft that needs more refining to create a better throughline. It's fine to tell this story out of chronological order, but it needs a more consistent emotional or narrative arc as opposed to just the hints of one.

While the significance of John Hirsch's theatrical career is noted throughout the play, as he crosses paths with other luminaries such as Frank Langella and Len Cariou (a fellow veteran of the Winnipeg theatre scene), the emotional focus wisely stays on Hirsch. Nashman (and Hirsch, the character) want to get to the 'real' Hirsch, to do him justice even if justice is less than flattering, but the show pulls its punches, acknowledging some of Hirsch's flaws without ever entirely letting go of its deference to him.

I never knew John Hirsch personally, but I'm sure at least some of the members of the audience at the performance I attended did, and I admire Nashman and Thompson a great deal for putting their interpretation in front of a crowd with that kind of connection to the subject. Hirsch has the makings of a great play about a fascinating person who deserves more recognition outside of this city which idolizes him, and it's hard to come out and say that its creators remain too hesitant in their approach. Their passion is undeniable, so I hope further performances and revisions give them a better handle on what they're trying to say.

Nov. 18 - Dec. 14

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